The last few weeks have been pretty unphotogenic with lots of time for meditation on the state-of-the-photography-world. I was traveling to some boring locations and now I am starring in awe at the snow outside of my house. It is freezing cold in Atlanta – I really did not sign up for this. So today, I want to talk very briefly about the internet as an enabler for photography before going back to starring at the snow.
When Rand’s Toohey (in The Fountainhead) proclaimed that ‘Unite-and-Reign is a much more powerful concept than Divide-and-Conquer’ she could not have possibly foreseen how spot-on she has been. In the Internet age it is the leaders of many small tribes that became ever so influential and, via the internet, smaller interest groups that are geographically spread out can effectively connect and communicate. This leads to a transfer of ‘opinion’ from large ‘single-entities’ to smaller dispersed interest groups. So where do we find ourselves in this world as photographers and more generally as artists?
Several theories regarding this network effect have been formulated. One of my personal favorite (despite its many flaws) is the long tail theory due to its simplicity and its ‘positive’ promise about the world. I am not a fan of ‘negative existentialism’ – life is just too short to be constantly in a net negative vortex… and more sophisticated theories do not necessarily explain reality better – I go with Occam’s Razor. So what does the long tail have to do with photography and art. Let us confine ourselves to the context of photography; the principle applies more broadly to almost any group subject to network effects. It essentially states (oversimplified) that only very few photographers will get a very broad audience and a lot of photographers have a small but stable audience: the numbers of niches increased drastically. This effect is known from older (pre-Internet) networks where the awareness of specific names and people is very limited to a small subgroup. While giving a demotivating impression at first, this is actually a great promise about realizing our own beliefs and photographic style.
Tribes. The result of the network effect are numerous smaller, dispersed groups with a very specific set of interests – tribes. Seth Godin’s tribes is an excellent read, laying out the possibilities of this fragmentation (see also his blog). It nicely discusses the role of these smaller groups and that participating in and maybe even leading such a group goes way beyond satisfying one’s own interests or marketing needs. It is about promoting an idea and not oneself. About promoting a specific view on the world.
Surfing the long tail. So how can we profit from the existence of the long tail. I believe that a first step is to acknowledge that it is not about the “quantity” of audience, but more about its “quality”. We are not getting more assignments or clients just by “more” audience. Most of those people are not interested in hiring – they are passive consumers; hell they might not even remember that they have seen your stuff. One true fan over thousands of followers. The old maxim to not pretend and just act according to one’s beliefs becomes more real than ever. There is so much space, so many niches and opportunities that we do not need to give a spiel about something we are not.
So just be yourself, follow your style, and keep shooting.
So long — TSJ.